We are continuing our look at classical rhetoric and its application for contemporary pastors. In the first post I made a general case for preachers’ use of rhetoric. In this post I want to briefly introduce the so-called, “canons of rhetoric,” which constituted the classical process for preparing a speech (or, as the case may be, a sermon). Then, I will show why this process can be such a vitally helpful tool for preachers today, with some help from Jason Bourne.

Classical rhetoric traditionally broke up the process of preparing a speech into five parts, or “canons.” The five canons are Invention (Inventio), Arrangement (Dispositio), Style (Elocutio), Memory (Memoria), and Delivery (Pronuntiatio). The great Roman orator, Cicero, succinctly summarized them in his treatise De Oratore:

“Since all the activity and ability of an orator falls into five divisions, I learned that he must first hit upon what to say (Inventio); then manage and marshal his discoveries, not merely in orderly fashion, but with a discriminating eye for the exact weight as it were of each argument (Dispositio); next go on to array them in the adornments of style (Elocutio); after that keep them guarded in his memory (Memoria); and in the end deliver them with effect and charm (Pronuntiatio).”1

These canons were not mere theoretical constructs or analytical tools. They were developed by practicing orators in antiquity for the purpose of preparing to speak and for teaching others to do the same. Classicist George Kennedy writes, “The parts of rhetoric as Cicero and others describe them are clearly pedagogical devices to suggest to a student the stages in the preparation of a speech.”2 In today’s terms, we might say they are a template for giving a talk.

The canons exercised a profound influence on classical thinkers, both secular and Christian, from antiquity up through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Augustine, for instance, alludes to them throughout his seminal handbook on Biblical interpretation and preaching, On Christian Teaching, and explicitly invokes them in the capstone of that work, Book IV. To be sure, the canons were far from the sum and substance of classical rhetoric and the extent to which they have been employed by orators across the centuries has varied. Nevertheless, they have served a vital role in the tradition and I am convinced they can be a great benefit to preachers and their craft today.

In order to get at why this is so, consider a problem I call the “Saturday e-brake.”

Picture a great chase scene from the movies, like one from the Bourne Identity series. Jason Bourne is tearing through tiny European streets in a Mini Cooper, trying to escape the bad guy. He is flying down the road at 80 mph in one direction, but suddenly he needs to make a quick getaway. And so, he throws the emergency brake (aka the “e-brake”), does a quick 180-degree turn, and starts cruising in the opposite direction.

Jason Bourne is so cool. Most of us preachers are, alas, not quite so cool. But we do tend to be adept at throwing the e-brake when it comes to our sermon preparation.

Here is what I mean. We might spend all week writing a sermon: poring over word selection, sentence structure, and syntax, until it all adds up in a homiletical masterpiece. All the momentum is going in the direction of readying this document. The preaching task looks, to this point, like an effectively literary enterprise. But unless the preacher intends to hand this document out to the congregation ahead of time, there is still more to be done.

Come Saturday (give or take), the sermon now needs to be internalized, if not memorized, in order to be proclaimed to the people of God on Sunday morning. Through some rhetorical alchemy, this literary document needs to be transmogrified for oral presentation. So, before he can ascend the pulpit, the preacher has to do a 180, reverse course, and get ready to preach to people and not just to a page. He has to throw the Saturday e-brake. And suffice it to say, he does not always pull it off as smoothly as Jason Bourne.

Now, I cannot say for certain how pervasive the problem of the Saturday e-brake is in particular. What I can say, from personal experience and from countless conversations with fellow pastors over the years, is (whether or not we deal with Bourne-esque acrobatics) nearly all of us struggle with making the move, as Thomas Long puts it, “from desk to pulpit.” The reason is because our approach to sermon preparation is inadequate. Long writes,

The crucial steps a preacher takes in moving toward a sermon [include] interpreting a Biblical text, creating a form, deciding about the use of illustrative material, and so on. Even though these activities have traditionally been thought of as ‘preparing the sermon,’ it would be more accurate, given the orality of preaching, to describe these steps as preparing for the sermon.3

Notice the distinction here. Long says, since the sermon is a matter of orality (that is, an act of public speaking), all of the pastor’s prep work cannot alone be understood as the sermon. Rather, it is preparation for the sermon, which is, in the end, the message actually proclaimed in the hearing of God’s people.

You might compare it to a coach getting his team ready for a game. All of the planning beforehand is necessary but is of itself insufficient. The point is the playing. Similarly, all the work a preacher puts in during the week is indispensable to the proclamation, but it is not itself the proclamation. The point is the preaching. To ignore this is to end up like a losing coach who laments, “We had a great game plan on paper, we just didn’t execute.” Well, bub, the execution is kind-of the whole idea.

All of this is intuitive and obvious. And yet, in practice, we oftentimes act as though writing the sermon were the thing, rather than prologue to the thing. Our goal as preachers, week to week, is not writing a sermon.4 We know this. Our goal is preparing to preach. We do not want merely to compose a document. We want to bring the living and active good news of God to bear on our hearers in the present moment.5

Here is where the classical process laid down in the canons of rhetoric can be so helpful. Because what we as preachers need is a process of sermon preparation consonant with our desired product; that is, for the way we get ready for the sermon to fit with the sermon itself. As Long suggests, we need a reorientation from “preparing the sermon” to “preparing for the sermon,” so we do not have to throw the Saturday e-brake.

Classical rhetoric facilitates this reorientation for the simple reason that, for the ancients, their aim was oratory rather than composition. They did not need the e-brake because, from the beginning, their process put them in the direction of oral delivery. The move from desk to pulpit, so to speak, was seamless. This can be the case for contemporary preachers as well by following in their rhetorical footsteps and employing the canons of rhetoric.

So, in the next post we will start digging into each of the canons themselves, starting with Invention (Inventio). And instead of throwing the e-brake, you will be able to shift into a higher gear.